Beginning to Understand Indulgences

December 11, 2008
Oftentimes I wonder if people really understand a thing before they rail against it. Maybe it’s our natural tendency to conform information in the world around us to our present world view. It makes us automatically reject any foreign concept existing off our radar, even if the real understanding of that concept isn’t opposed to our current beliefs.

I don’t claim to fully understand indulgences or why the church has chosen to make use of them, but I’m not going to reject it based on the already tenuous Protestant concept of “saved once and for all”. Our salvation is a continuing thing. We become more Christ-like with every right step in the race. Personally, I would hope God isn’t done with me yet, because I’m certainly not a finished work. In that spirit, here’s a few thoughts that make indulgences less foreign and less repulsive to the Protestant mind:

I just found out recently that the Catholic Church has made a distinction between two consequences of sin. The first is separation from God and eternal damnation. The second is the attachment to worldly things that is left in us as a result of sin. This second consequence is termed “temporal punishment” by the Church. It can easily be understood by any person aware of their own condition, saved or unsaved. You gossip with the neighbor lady down the street, and there’s a part of you that yearns for the next juicy tidbit she might have to offer.

According to the Church, we must rid ourselves of this temporal punishment, which is really the imperfect condition we are in, either in this life or in Purgatory. Simply put, this is our refiner’s fire, purifying us to make us suitable to see the face of God. (Mal 3:1-3, 1 Cor 3:10-15) An old song comes to mind:

Purify my heart
Let me be as gold and precious silver
Purify my heart
Let me be as gold, pure gold

Refiner’s fire, my heart’s one desire
Is to be holy
Set apart for You, Lord
I choose to be holy
Set apart for You, my Master
Ready to do Your will

Purify my heart
Cleanse me from within and make me holy
Purify my heart
Cleanse me from my sin, deep within

Is there really a difference? Or has the Catholic Church simply acknowledged a mechanism for such a thing? There’s a mechanism in Purgatory and another in indulgences. They cannot save you from eternal damnation and separation from God, only faith in Christ can do such a thing. (Council of Trent, Sixth Session, Chapter VIII) They do provide for your increase in justification, your increase in purification, so to speak, becoming more like Christ. Indulgences aren’t a get-out-of-Hell-free card. They’re a step in the direction in which you’re already headed.

Here’s the online Catholic Catechism including the sections on indulgences.